The Real World Comes of Age Without Aging a Bit
Where were you nine years ago? Don’t worry, it’s not a trick question. No babies were stuck at the bottoms of wells, nobody was assassinated, no buildings blew up. Chances are you were nowhere in particular, doing nothing in particular, which probably left you plenty of time to watch TV.
For me, 1992 came smack in the middle of that ball of confusion we might call “The MTV Years.” This is the period when, whether you’re conscious of it or not, MTV has a major impact on deciding whose CDs you buy, what you wear, what movies you see, where you go for lunch—all the decisions important to teenagers and college students who are getting their first tastes of freedom but are still far from independence. I didn’t even have MTV for most of my youth and it still introduced me to things you just didn’t see most days in Middle America. Yo! MTV Raps!, Headbangers Ball, 120 Minutes—these were my Cheers, Cosby Show, and St. Elsewhere, and anytime I could get a friend to let me come over and watch, I was there.
Then came The Switch. Slowly, almost subliminally, MTV shifted from being mostly-music television to being music-and-a-lot-of-cheap-original-programming television. The coup de grace in The Switch was The Real World, a program that, conceptually at least, seemed like such a godawful idea that it shook the confidence of more than one MTV fan. Some questioned the morality of filming a group of young people 24 hours a day and then broadcasting the results to a mass audience. Some felt television had reached a new low. Others simply saw it as a voyeuristic experiment destined for failure. Our teenaged objections weren’t as philosophical: “Dude, how stupid is it watching seven normal people just acting normal?” or “I bet they’ll edit out all the nudity and fights and stuff,” and finally, “I thought it was supposed to be Music Television.”
It was, and still is, Music Television. The first of many genius strokes of The Real World is that it directly links music to lifestyle without making the former a hip soundtrack for the latter. It’s not American Bandstand or similar shows (MTV’s own Total Request Live, for example) that tie music and culture together as one and the same (The Beach Boys = Surfers; Flock of Seagulls = New Wavers). There is music in The Real World, but more than that, it’s about people who listen to music that could be seen and heard on MTV. It’s about young people living a middle-class mock-up of the rock and roll and/or movie idol and/or TV star lifestyle.
As somebody who didn’t yet think of music as a lifestyle choice, I was suspicious, and as a result, I missed all but one episode of the first season, set in New York. And though my suspicion has never fully waned, I’ve grudgingly admitted to myself that The Real World is one of my favorite programs of the past decade. By no means was this an easy admission. I tend not to talk about The Real World except with people whom I know are fans. If somebody brings it up, I’ll nonchalantly say, “Yeah, I watch it now and then, but I’ve only seen a couple episodes from a couple seasons,” thereby deflecting any criticism I might get for being devoted to TV trash. But about six months ago, at a gathering of about a dozen people, aged between 21 and 32 and of varying social, cultural, and economic backgrounds—come to think of it, we looked a lot like a Real World cast—I realized that this response had become cliche. When somebody brought up The Real World, everyone except one die-hard fan agreed that they’d only seen a couple of shows from a couple of seasons. Then everyone started talking about it. “Boston? Oh yeah, I remember that one.” “L.A.? That season was actually pretty good. I saw a lot of those.” “Seattle? What the hell was up with that David guy, anyway?” We slowly came to another realization—we’d all seen more than our share of The Real World. It was shocking, depressing even. But, like good ADD disciples, we got over it pretty fast.
My fondness for the Real World was confirmed when I went to the Real World Attic, at
, and had to admit that I not only remembered, but fondly recalled all but one of the video clips from each season that were being offered for voting as the best Real World scenes ever. So how did a group of young adults that unscientifically but effectively represents the tail end of one generation and the front end of another come to watch and enjoy a show that nobody wanted to admit liking? Therein lies the second genius stroke of The Real World.
MTV’s programmers have proven time and again their ability to hone in on the two contradictory personality traits of young people: short attention span and laziness. You don’t have to make plans to watch The Real World; just turn on MTV and there’s a good chance that if it’s not on, it will be soon. Just flip around to something else and check back later. And if you’re too hung over to go out on Saturday and flipping channels is giving you a headache, just kick back and enjoy the entire Miami season (season five) in one marathon session from 10pm to 4am. This is just a hypothetical, of course—I would never stay up all night on a weekend and watch The Real World. Honest.
After almost a decade, the MTV mainstay is back in New York and keeping it real in an entertainment landscape that has drastically changed. Reality TV and programs with real people are all the rage. There are the traditional prime-time game shows featuring free-range people, like the fading Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, the lame Weakest Link, and the home computer game crossover, You Don’t Know Jack. There are also the “reality” game shows like Survivor, Big Brother, Temptation Island, Boot Camp, Blind Date, Chains of Love, Bands on the Run, all the Real World spinoffs, etc., etc., etc.
All of these reality shows undoubtedly owe a debt to The Real World, which cleared the way for filming real people in non-news contexts. But there are fundamental differences between them and The Real World. On Survivor and all the copycats it has spawned, there is a singular goal in mind, usually to win money or some sort of big-ticket prize. On The Real World, there are smaller goals—the participants are given quaint jobs at radio or TV stations, or set up with seed money for entrepreneurial endeavors—but these are simply incentives to keep them from sitting around the house watching MTV all day.
These goals are part of the story arc, not the driving force behind the program. And story arc is key. Don’t believe all the haters who claim that The Real World is not realistic. Not only is it a completely unoriginal criticism, it completely misses the point. Even though the opening sequence has always played up the fact that the show features seven normal people who are ready to “start getting real,” it’s obvious that the cast members know that “getting real” needs to look compelling once it gets to the editing room. It’s “TV real,” a quality that has been used to Nielsen-smashing effect on Survivor.
Which is the third genius stroke of The Real World. The show is not a documentary based on a Skinnerian psychological test. Nor is it truly reality TV, which ranges from the nightly news on the legit side to World’s Scariest Police Videos on the not-so-legit side. The Real World is an approximation of real life shaped into a digestible entertainment product. In that respect, the show has less in common with reality TV than it does with that camp classic, The Monkees. Here you had four real-life musicians who were picked to come together and pretend to be a band on a weekly TV show, all the while confronting madcap, albeit scripted, situations that were sure to draw laughs. In The Real World, seven people pretend to be roommates on a weekly TV show, only the situations are planned in advance and the dialogue is improvised. It’s such a simple formula that when you think about it, it’s a wonder that The Real World is going into its 10th season.
Ten seasons. Over nine years. Many, many, many mass offerings have lasted only a fraction of that length of time, including: grunge, Lollapalooza, Sega game consoles, OJ Simpson’s murder trial, President Clinton (granted, he was forced out by the dumb old Constitution), Monica Lewinsky, Gennifer Flowers, Seinfeld, Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place, muddy Woodstock, riot Woodstock, pagers for the masses, Alicia Silverstone’s film career, Pauly Shore’s film career, Napster, Tupac, virtual pets, U2’s rockstar image, two rises and falls for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, two rises and falls for Donald Trump, Beavis and Butt-Head, the swing resurgence, IPO and dot-com mania, the Fresh Prince (became Will Smith), The Artist Formerly Known as Prince (once again Prince), Marky Mark (became Mark Wahlberg), Crystal Pepsi, and OK Cola.
In the ever-shorter cycle of entertainment trends, where life-spans are measured in dog years, the fact that a show can survive nearly a decade is exemplary. That The Real World has accomplished this feat on a station whose lifeblood is perpetual youth and of-the-moment trends is incredible. If we assume that MTV is playing god with the minds, tastes, and wallets of the world’s youth, then The Real World is its self-recycling Garden of Eden. It’s even better than the Garden of Eden. The cast is created in the demographic image of MTV’s viewers and put into a house with all the temptations a young adult could ask for—swimming pools, game consoles, transportation, pre-planned excursions to exotic destinations, and countless bars within walking distance. Yet the cast members are not told that they can’t partake of it; rather, they’re told to partake as much as they want because they only have three months before they’re banished to the real real world. Given such a tempting proposition, of course there’s resulting drama and comedy. It’s the least the cast can do in return for such a sweet setup.
Plus, every year the slate is wiped clean and it starts all over. Just when I’d had enough of Amaya’s self-righteousness (season eight, Hawaii), she was replaced with Julie (season nine, New Orleans) and her compellingly banal journey into womanhood. Can you imagine if Friends didn’t have to deal with multi-season story arcs and could just start fresh every season? You’d lose the continuity and familiarity that come with any long-running series, but you’d also have that constant renewal of plot and locale without having to adapt to an entirely new concept. It’s a pop TV: forget longevity, let’s shoot for what’s hot right now.
About the only other TV shows (besides soap operas, which are really the closest thing to The Real World) to last as long as The Real World in the same timeframe are Law and Order and The Simpsons. Though not always intentionally, Law and Order has maintained its popularity despite periodic cast changes and story arcs that mimic popular current events and news stories. The Simpsons has succeeded with an opposite but similar approach: the characters and locale remain constant, but the storylines change to fit the times, while maintaining a solid foundation of timelessness. The Simpsons can do it because it’s a cartoon (and, admittedly, often masterfully written); The Real World does it by regularly scheduled cast replacements. Watching an old episode can bring many hairstyle- and fashion-induced cringes, but the problems the roommates had way back in season three (San Francisco) are nearly the same as problems the roommates are having in season nine (New Orleans).
And they’ll undoubtedly be the same problems they have in season 10. For the past few years, MTV has run a Real World/Road Rules casting special, in which the cast for each program is chosen from all the finalists. It makes sense that this spectacle would be televised right along with the rest of the season, and as ridiculous as the special can get, it offers a glimpse into why the casting directors pick the people they do. Perhaps it’s just fancy editing, but you get the feeling that they’re doing their jobs well, truly picking the most interesting people.
Of course, the cast and crew are really just on cruise control at this point. Season 10 features all the same people with different names and faces: there’s the innocent one (Rachel), the laid-back one (Malik), the saucy one (Coral), the Midwestern bumpkin (Mike), the budding romance that’s certain to go awry (Kevin and Lori), and the emotional wildcard (Nicole)—not to mention the coolest house (pool table included, natch) you’ll ever see seven young people sharing in the heart of Manhattan.
It’s a formula as tried and true as mom’s casserole recipe, yet there’s comfort in knowing what to anticipate without knowing exactly what to expect and who will do what without knowing when or how they’ll do it. That’s a long way of saying, “It’s gonna be good.” Not so good that I’m marking off the “10 Spot” every week on my calendar and seeing the whole season the first time it runs, but chances are that by the time Season 11 premieres this time next summer, I will have seen every episode at least once and will know the characters as if I’d grown up with them. Whether you’re ready to admit it or not, you probably will, too.